A New Year’s Day pinch

I just re-read my last blog post from a year ago. On January 1, 2014, it appears I was wallowing a bit—staring into a figurative glassful of something and pondering 52 years of relative New Year’s Day disappointment (in local college football, not life) while the Wisconsin Badgers, the team I hate most, was playing in prime time at the Rose Bowl.

The Gophers had already played in their bowl game—a 21-17 loss to Syracuse five days earlier—and the streak was alive of not playing on New Year’s Day or later since 1962.

Now that the 2015 ball has dropped, everything has changed… finally. Thankfully! No, Minnesota is not playing in the Rose Bowl (that honor goes to two non–Big Ten teams—Oregon and Florida State—as part of the new college football playoff), but they’re in about the next best place: Orlando, “the happiest place on earth for long-suffering Gopher fans!”

In about 15 minutes, the Gophers will kick off against Missouri in the Citrus Bowl… on New Year’s Day. I think I need to pinch myself. What’s more, even though Missouri—which won its division in the heralded Southeast Conference—is favored by 4 1/2 points, all six sports reporters/columnists for the Star Tribune are picking the Gophers to pull off the upset. That’s good for another pinch.

This all makes me wish I would have picked 2014 as the year for the Season Pass blog, as I would have traveled to and seen in person the great games at Michigan and Nebraska. But I’ve enjoyed this season every bit as much from the comforts of home, minus a trip to Madison for the showdown with the Badgers on November 29. And I’m going to soak in very bit of this one from home. …

On New Year’s Day.

The Citrus Bowl

My connection to the Citrus Bowl was seeing it towering in the distance behind the right field fence during the last year of spring training at Tinker Field. That’s Kent Hrbek coming up a bit short on an infield practice pop fly.

Putting the wraps on 2013

For the second straight year, I’m sitting at home on New Year’s Day watching bowl games not involving Minnesota, and that’s a shame. It’s nothing different than any other year in my lifetime, but it’s still a shame.

As I type, our three biggest regional, Big Ten rivals are all playing on television: Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Gophers are licking their wounds from a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl and already looking ahead to next year, which is now this year on the calendar.

But there are silver linings for us Gopher fans, right? Indeed, there are. In Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl—the destination we were most realistically dreaming of—there’s a steady rain falling, and one of the announcers said the sun hasn’t been out in three days. It’s not much better today in Tampa or Orlando either, so the Sunshine State is apparently a big letdown.

In addition to that, the match-ups weren’t very favorable for our conference participants. Iowa and Nebraska were significant underdogs, and Wisconsin was favored against South Carolina but by the slimmest of margins. So it’s looking like another two-win bowl season for the Big Ten.

Looking back, looking ahead

Once the sting fades from the second straight bowl defeat in Houston, 2013 will definitely be remembered as a good year for Minnesota—a solid stepping stone in the Jerry Kill era. In his three years, the team has finished 3-9, 6-7, and now 8-5. Nine wins overall would have been big, darn near historic, but eight is cause for at least a minor celebration.

Here are some things that will stick with me from this year:

The four straight Big Ten wins. From Oct. 5 to Nov. 23, the Gophers managed to go 49 days between losses. Sure, there were two bye weeks in that span (apparently, the NCAA has no shame in trying to maximize revenues), but that’s damn near two moon cycles and half a semester with nothing but wins to celebrate.

On the road against Northwestern, the shocker at home against Nebraska, on the road against Indiana, and at home against Penn State, the Gophers ripped off four straight conference wins in the same season for the first time in 40 years!

The even more historic win against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had beaten the Gophers 16 straight times dating back to 1963, and Minnesota’s last victory in the series came in 1960—on the way to the most recent of its seven national championships. But on Oct. 26, the Gophers claimed a signature 34-23 win over the Huskers, causing a few thousand fans, most of whom were not alive in 1960, to rush the field.

Jerry Kill chats with a student.

In something of a Friday ritual, Coach Jerry Kill chats with and hands out free tickets to U students.

The fans and state rallying around Coach Kill. Kill’s seizure problems resurfaced again this year, and he was unable to make the trip to Michigan for the Oct. 5 game. That caused a local columnist to suggest that the head coach needed to step down. Instead, he took a couple weeks off to recalibrate and adjust medications, then returned to full duty while coaching on game days from upstairs.

Athletics Director Norwood Teague, President Eric Kaler, and a vast majority of Gopher fans stood behind their coach, and at the end of the year Kill was named a Regional Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association.

And a few more miscellaneous thoughts and statistics:

• I wasn’t aware of this until the second half of the bowl game against Syracuse, but at that point Kill’s record at Minnesota when trailing at halftime was 0-20. Unfortunately, and amazingly, that mark is now 0-21.

• That second bye week needs to go out the window. The Gophers began their season on Aug. 29 and played their last Big Ten game on Nov. 30. Compare that to 1960, when the season began on Sept. 24 and wrapped up on Nov. 19, before Thanksgiving.

• As a corollary to that last point, we all need to use some restraint when bragging about bowl appearances and wins in a season. It’s possible to make it to a bowl game with only two conference wins, sad but true. And everyone was fond of pointing out that the Gophers almost made it to nine wins this year for only the second time since 1905. True enough, but from 1906 to 1941, they played more than eight games total only once.

• It will be sad to see some of the seniors go. Most notable in that group are All-Americans Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, who are both likely to be playing on Sundays. Hageman, in particular, made visible improvements every year, and will probably be drafted by the end of the second round.

Other key cogs have been Aaron Hill and Roland Johnson on defense, and Ed Olson, Mike Henry, and Derrick Engel on offense. Fortunately, the Gophers are a young team, and there’s a lot of talent in the pipeline.

• AND… On this day in not-so-recent history:

On January 1, 1962, quarterback Sandy Stephens led the Golden Gophers to a 21-3 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins tallied an early field goal, but after that it was all Minnesota. The All-American Stephens first scored from a yard out, then led the Gophers on a 75-yard touchdown drive before halftime. He capped the scoring with a two-yard run in the second half, sending the Gophers and their fans home from Pasadena happy.

It can happen, Gophers fans; it just hasn’t in a long time. Maybe next… make that this year!

Countdown to Houston

It’s been a month between posts for the Season Pass blog, but now that bowl season has kicked into gear, my attention has returned to college football. Even if I wanted to avoid it today, I walked into seeing the last 45 minutes of the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl while getting my hair cut. (It’s good to be a guy?)

Watching the game will wind up falling somewhere between getting my hair cut and going to the dentist in the final pleasure ratings of this week’s activities. Fortunately, there’s some holiday cheer a sleep or two away, and soon after that the Gophers will be playing at Houston in the Texas Bowl.

Full disclosure: I was more than a little disappointed that Minnesota dropped down the Big Ten bowl pecking order to Houston. As Coach Kill pointed out, the Gophers were perhaps fortunate to make it to the same bowl last year, given that both Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for post-season play.

But this year, Minnesota deserved better. I have no gripes with Iowa’s lot at the Outback Bowl—after all, the Hawkeyes (like the Gophers, 8-4) beat us convincingly in the Big Ten opener on September 28.

But picking both Nebraska and Michigan ahead of Minnesota—for the Gator and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowls, respectively—was a true slight. The Gophers beat Nebraska, convincingly, in that head-to-head match-up, and Michigan finished with one less victory.

But both teams supposedly “travel better” than the Gophers and arguably have better name recognition, at this point. So it’s delightful to hear that Nebraska was having trouble filling even one charter plane for fans, while Minnesota fans are on their way to filling a second.

Still, I’m looking forward to Friday’s game. The Gophers, with a victory, would notch just their second nine-plus-win season since 1905*, another huge step in the right direction. They’re a four-point favorite over 6-6 Syracuse, a team they beat last year 17-10 in a thriller at TCF Bank Stadium.

Given how this season played out—with both the four-game conference winning streak and the solid efforts in losses against Wisconsin and Michigan State—and the history of playing a great game in the same venue a year ago, the Gophers’ confidence should be through the roof at Reliant Stadium.

Go Gophers!

Extending their careers

Congratulations to Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, who will continue their football careers beyond this week, and likely considerably longer.

Hageman, the All-Big Ten and All-American defensive tackle, will play in the 2014 Reese’s Senior Bowl on Jan. 25 in Mobile, Ala. He’s the U’s 36th Senior Bowl selection and the first since offensive lineman Mark Setterstrom in 2006. He is also the Gophers’ first defensive player on the roster since linemen Karon Riley and John Schlecht in 2001.

Hageman finished the regular season with 34 tackles, a team-high 11 tackles for loss, two sacks, and some very impressive miscellaneous statistics: one interception, eight pass breakups, one fumble recovery, one blocked field goal, and one blocked extra point.

Vereen, who earned All-Big Ten First Team honors from the conference coaches, was named to the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Jan. 18. He’s the first Gopher since Greg Eslinger in 2006 to make a Shrine Game roster.

Hageman and Vereen have also both been invited to the NFL combine.

Back to the cold reality

Fans wearing winter coats and scarves.Two bits of bad news for Gopher fans today. One streak is over—that glorious four-game Big Ten winning streak for Minnesota that kept fans from having to mull over a loss for nearly 50 days.

But the other streak is alive—that distasteful run Wisconsin has in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Badgers made it 10 wins in a row today by beating Minnesota 20-7 on a blustery, wintry day in front of a record crowd of 53,090 at the Bank. And that’s certainly bad news for fans who had grown accustomed to their team finding a way to win.

In the end, the Gophers were done in by turnovers (three compared to Wisconsin’s one), a general inability to move the ball well, and the specific inability to cash in on key third- and fourth-down plays. But credit that to Wisconsin’s top-10 defense, a couple of questionable non-pass-interference calls, and perhaps the frigid weather.

By game’s end it was 16 degrees with a wind chill below zero, and that had fans walking to the exits complaining about how much their toes hurt, if they could still feel them. Throughout the game, spilled liquids turned to ice on the floors of the concourse and the plaza at the west end of the stadium.

In addition to the distasteful streak staying alive, the Gopher fans who stayed till the end had to put up with watching Badger players chop at the west goalpost with the axe, then parade it around the perimeter of the stadium for their fans to touch.

But there were a number of positives to take from the game, which was competitive from start to finish. The Gophers played some terrific defense themselves, holding the Badgers to about 200 yards of rushing and less than 330 yards total, and stopping them in a number of key situations.

The scoreboard saying 7-3 Minnesota over Wisconsin.

The early returns were good for Minnesota: a 7-3 lead in the middle of the second quarter.

And linebacker Aaron Hill, one of the Gophers honored on Senior Day before the game, delivered a moment to remember when he picked off a Joel Stave pass early in the second quarter and raced 39 yards to the end zone to give Minnesota a 7-3 lead and stir the crowd into a frenzy.

Plus, Gopher fans are nothing if not creative in their ability to put a positive spin on an otherwise disappointing loss. “We covered the spread, we covered the spread!” screamed one man ambling toward the exits.

Sometimes it’s the little victories we have to celebrate. And at least this loss came at the end of a lot of little victories.

Meaningful November football

Here we are on November 21 and the Gophers are still playing for something meaningful this season. And much more meaningful than just bowl eligibility.

Believe it or not, Minnesota still has an outside chance to advance to the Big Ten Championship game and even the Rose Bowl. All that needs to happen is the following:

  • Minnesota needs to beat Wisconsin on Saturday
  • Michigan State must lose to Northwestern Saturday
  • Minnesota must beat Michigan State on November 30 in East Lansing (forcing a tie for first place in the Legends Division, with the Gophers holding the head-to-head victory)
  • The Gophers beat Ohio State for the Big Ten championship

Just three more wins against teams favored by double-digit points. No big deal, right?

The Big Ten standings on November 17.

Click to enlarge

Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, it was a treat to open Sunday’s newspaper and see these standings, with the Gophers in second place in the division and above seven other teams in the Big Ten.

And then to see the polls on Monday, where the Gophers have climbed to No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and are sitting just outside the Top 25 (No. 26) in the Associated Press Poll.

The battle for the axe

It’s probably only the third most famous of the U’s rivalry games, but the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe has its undeniable claim to fame: at 122 games and counting, Minnesota-Wisconsin has been the most played rivalry in all of the FBS.

Rhys Lloyd at the Wisconsin sideline searching for Paul Bunyan's Axe in 2003.

Rhys Lloyd found a crease on the Wisconsin sideline in his quest to find the axe in 2003.

Minnesota is hanging on to a slim margin in the series with a 58-56-8 record, but the Badgers have won the past nine meetings. The Gophers’ last victory came in a thriller at the Metrodome in 2003, when Rhys Lloyd nailed a 35-yard field goal as time expired to give them a 37-34 victory.

Lloyd then ran about a 4.4 40-yard dash to the Wisconsin sideline, ahead of his teammates, high-jumped the bench, and pulled the axe out from under wraps. His teammates caught up to him soon enough and helped parade the axe around the base of the stands. Good times, indeed, but seemingly too long ago…

The first game of the rivalry in 1890? Now that was one to remember! Apparently Wisconsin had been delaying a visit to Minnesota until it could be guaranteed a payment of $250 for expenses, and that finally happened 123 years and 6 days ago.

On the field, it was barely a contest. Minnesota used some trickery to get around a rule requiring the quarterback to hand the ball off rather than advance it himself. So QB Alf Pillsbury indeed handed the ball off, but then took a number of return laterals and made some large gains.

It all added up to Minnesota pasting Wisconsin by a score of 63-0, its largest margin of victory in the series (although there was also a nice 54-0 drubbing in 1916).

My favorite summation of that 1890 contest?

“The game was one continual procession towards the Wisconsin goal,” reported the Minnesota Alumni Weekly, “and only once, for a few seconds, did Wisconsin come within spy-glass distance of Minnesota’s goal line.”

That kind of defense would come in handy Saturday.

Eight reasons why the Gophers have eight wins

Five weeks ago, there was an entirely different atmosphere around Minnesota football. The Gophers were coming off of a 42-13 spanking at the hands of their once-rival Michigan. It was their second straight loss and one not seen in person by head coach Jerry Kill, who had suffered another seizure and didn’t make the trip to Ann Arbor.

And a local sports columnist suggested that Kill knew that he “has to be on the sideline, and in front of recruits, to do his job well.”

Here we are on November 14, and oh, how things have changed. Minnesota is currently riding its longest single-season Big Ten winning streak in 40 years and has clawed its way to a No. 25 ranking in the current USA Today Coaches Poll. And Jerry Kill is still not on the sideline, although that has become a matter of semantics.

How in the world did this transpire? How can the Gophers be sitting at eight wins and envisioning a ceiling much higher than just about anyone else could have imagined?

The number 8 on a jersey.Here are eight reasons.

8. A bend-but-not-break defense. Minnesota’s defense is more or less middle of the pack in almost every category, from rushing and passing yards allowed to sacks and turnovers forced. But even with the Michigan and Indiana games, the Gophers are only allowing 23.4 points per game, and lately they’ve been able to come up with a lot of key stops when they’re needed.

7. Fourth down. The Gophers sit atop the Big Ten in fourth-down conversions. Heading into the Penn State game they had made good on 8 of 11 attempts for a 72.7 percent rate, and they proceeded to go three-for-three against the Nittany Lions. Now that percentage is up to 78.6. In the crunch, we’ll take those odds any day.

6. Stability at quarterback. Minnesota has still thrown for fewer yards than any team in the conference, but its quarterbacks’ passing efficiency rating is right in the middle of the pack. And while Philip Nelson has reemerged as the starter the last two weeks, both he and Mitch Leidner have been solid assets this season.

5. Penalties and turnovers. These are key ingredients in any recipe for winning. After nine games, the Gophers were best in the Big Ten at avoiding penalties (with only 36 total for 319 yards), although they had five against Penn State on Saturday. Staying away from penalties doesn’t guarantee wins, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

The same can be said for turnovers, which have played a large role in this season’s success. Minnesota is plus-six for the season—a number that mirrors their success during the winning streak.

4. Rock-solid coaching. Kill hasn’t missed a game since that Michigan contest and has been at every practice leading up to the last three games. Sure, he’s coaching from the booth upstairs, but that’s as much by choice as from medical necessity. He jokes that at this point he doesn’t want to come down to the field and mess things up.

And his assistants don’t miss a beat even if he’s not around. The staff is the most tenured in the nation; Kill’s nine assistants and strength and conditioning coach have served with him for a combined 124 years. They know the drill, and apparently they run the drill just as well as Kill. There has been nothing missing (at least to the eyes of fans) in the last month, and that has kept their leader upstairs watching from the coaches’ booth.

3. David Cobb. You certainly don’t need a top-line running back to have success in football (at the moment I’m not remembering who the running back is for either Texas A&M or the Denver Broncos), but it sure does help. What was once running-back-by-committee for the Gophers—with Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick William, and Cobb sharing carries—has shifted, in part from injuries, to Cobb being the clear No. 1.

He has the ability to find a crease where one doesn’t seem apparent, and more than anyone in the last seven years, he can turn five yards into 50. Not coincidentally, he’s on track to become the first Gopher since Amir Pinnix in 2006 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Cobb’s total now, with three (possibly four?) games remaining: 942.

2. The offensive scheme and play calling. The Gophers’ offense has been somewhere between predictable and vanilla the last few years—to some degree a reflection of Kill’s intent on being successful running the ball.

But during the streak we’ve been able to see some new chapters in the playbook. There have been jet sweeps, reverses, quarterbacks coming in motion from the slot to take a quick snap, and flea flickers on the first play from scrimmage. Toss in those 14 fourth-down plays, and this offense is starting to feel doggone exotic.

1. Intangibles … or some strange, cosmic force. Admit it, Gophers fans, not one of you predicted four victories in a row after the Michigan game. To do so would fly in the face of trends and statistics and point spreads, and… well, reality. It doesn’t make me less of a fan to admit that I wondered aloud if even one conference win was a foregone conclusion.

The head coach had to step aside for a moment, the team seemed to be lacking in execution and confidence, and the schedule looked formidable. And then came those four glorious, unexpected wins.

It’s as if the players channeled the spirits of Bronko Nagurski, Bruce Smith, Paul Giel, and Bobby Bell in a mass huddle in the Murray Warmath Home Team Locker Room. Coach Kill may or may not have been around; that hardly seems to matter.

I’ll repeat what Jean Olson said in my last blog post after Saturday’s game: “It’s fun to come to football now! … Keep ‘em coming.”

Another big step forward

This time, there was no need to storm the field, although part of me feels that every win beyond six should put a “charge” into long-suffering Gopher fans.

Chris Hawthorne gets ready to kick the ball.

About .15 seconds before the start of Minnesota’s eighth win of the season

But unlike two weeks ago, when fan enthusiasm after the win over Nebraska—which Minnesota had not beaten in 53 years—spilled out onto the field, the Gopher faithful realized that this one wasn’t a big upset. In fact, Minnesota’s 24-10 victory over Penn State wasn’t an upset at all.

Sure, the Gophers had lost four straight times in the battle for the Governor’s Victory Bell—the afterthought in Minnesota’s trophy-game contests—but they were actually favored to beat Penn State this time, and they played like it. The win gives the Gophers an 8-2 record overall, and their fourth straight Big Ten victory for the first time in a single season since 1973.

Minnesota took a 3-0 lead 87 seconds into the game after the Nittany Lions fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, and that proved to be the launching point for one of the best halves of football the Gophers have played in years.

After Penn State punted on its second possession to the Minnesota 4-yard line, the Gophers embarked on a signature drive, marching 96 yards over 15 plays and 8:10 to a one-yard touchdown by David Cobb that gave them a 10-0 lead. Then, after Penn State answered with a touchdown drive of their own, the Gophers churned out another long march—this one 13 plays and 70 yards capped by a six-yard run by Philip Nelson, who played at a high-level with poise and confidence all day.

When the Gophers held the Nittany Lions to a field goal with just over three minutes remaining in the half, which made the score 17-10, you were half expecting (okay, three-quarters expecting) Minnesota to try to run out the clock, especially heading into the gusty—make that, uncomfortable—westerly wind.

Not this year’s Gophers, who have shown a penchant for an aggressive, gambling style. They put together their third long drive of the half and completed three critical third-down plays along the way. On the last, facing third-and-10, Nelson found Maxx Williams alone down the left sideline for a 24-yard strike to give the Gophers a 24-10 halftime lead and their fans a cautious sense that this could be another breakout game.

A helmet with a red, white, and blue M.

The Gophers wore special “M”s on their helmets for Military Appreciation Day.

And they made good on that promise in a scoreless second half. What the final 30 minutes lacked in points it didn’t lack in drama. There were punts downed at the one-yard line, some great defense by both teams, and a key turnover for each side.

The last one was a fumble by Penn State on Minnesota’s one-yard line with about six minutes remaining. James Manuel dove on the loose ball, and the Gophers pounced on the opportunity to run out the rest of the clock and send the crowd of 48,123 home happy.

“I thought it was a great game,” said a long-time fan who preferred to go by just Paul. “I think the Gophers have figured out how to win. They look confident, and they’re playing as a team—playing with each other—and that’s good to see.” He says he’s not surprised that Minnesota is 8-2, and hopes that will move to 10-2 after they “put Wisconsin behind them, too.”

As I headed toward the concourse, a few moments after the Gophers transported the bell to the front of the U of M Marching Band and student section while “Hail, Minnesota” played proudly, I ran into a couple with big smiles, seemingly unaffected by the mid-November chill and holding on to souvenir U.S. flags from Military Appreciation Day.

Gary and Jean Olson are long-time fans as well, and Gary admitted that he is surprised that Minnesota is now a lofty 8-2. We both nodded our heads, and Jean interjected with something I’d been thinking all day: “It’s fun to come to football now!  Keep ‘em coming.”

Oh yeah… Watch Coach Kill dance, high on the victory and low to the floor. The 52-year-old’s still got it.

Gary and Jean Olson.

Gary and Jean Olson

Fans in the stands.

As they smiled toward the field, these fans were also shown on the scoreboard.

Philip Nelson.

Philip Nelson gets ready for a post-game interview.

Some numbers to consider, then disregard

Uh-oh. Minnesota is favored by two points on Saturday against Penn State. This can’t be good.

For the past three games the Gophers have played the role of underdog exceptionally well, beating teams (Northwestern, Nebraska, and Indiana) that were favored by an average of 10 points.

Suddenly, they find themselves favored to win a game for the first time since San Jose State. They’re playing a team in the Nittany Lions that’s coming off of a thrilling win of their own—over Illinois in overtime—and with an overall record of 5-3. Both Minnesota (3-2 in the Legends) and Penn State (2-2 in the Leaders) are alone in third place in their respective divisions.

But No. 30/32 Minnesota won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on anyone for the remainder of the season. That’s what happens when you win three Big Ten games in a row for what seems like the first time in ages.

A look back at ‘recent’ Big Ten streaks

Now for the fun part—looking at this mini streak’s place in recent Gopher history and speculating about what might be with another Minnesota win on Saturday.

The Gophers’ last three-game conference winning streak came in 2008, when they beat Indiana at home and won at Illinois and Purdue.

Call Stoll and Tony Dungy.

Call Stoll and Tony Dungy

A win Saturday would be their fourth straight Big Ten victory. The last time that happened in one season was an even 40 years ago, in 1973*. Cal Stoll was the coach as Minnesota closed the year with wins at Northwestern, at home against Purdue, at Illinois, and at home against Wisconsin. (Minnesota also won four straight conference games spanning the 1975 and ’76 seasons, but that covered a span of nearly 11 months.)

And finally, when do you suppose was the last time the Gophers reached eight or more victories in a season against only two defeats?

Was it 2008, that year when Coach Brew’s team made a surprising run into the national rankings? Nope, although that team started off 7-1, it limped down the stretch with six straight defeats including 55-0 to Iowa in the Dome finale and 42-21 to Kansas at the Insight Bowl.

The last time the Gophers reached eight wins against two losses was in 2003, the mostly golden year that unfortunately contained the Michigan game. And before that it was 1967, the year they lasted tasted a share of the Big Ten title.

*Another note about that ’73 season: It marked the highest Minnesota has finished in the Big Ten—third place—since that last Big Ten title.

To me, that may be the most staggering statistic—that in 46 years, not only have we not been to the Rose Bowl or won a conference title, we haven’t even finished in second place. And there have been only four third-place finishes: 1968, 1973, 1976 (tie), and 1986 (tie).

Finally, just forget I even mentioned the prospect eight victories. The last time I did that publicly was in 2008.

A new level of excitement


In a span of about 20 minutes, in Eastern Daylight Time, the Gophers went from completely giving up a 22-point lead to retaking the lead on a late touchdown, then watched as Indiana marched inside the 10-yard line toward a game-winning touchdown… or at least a game-tying field goal.

Then, when senior linebacker Aaron Hill picked up an incomplete backward pass and rumbled away from the goal line, the Gophers had suddenly—and a lot of this game was played in “suddenly” mode—preserved a 42-39 victory in Bloomington.

It was the third straight conference win for Minnesota and pushed the Gophers’ record to 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten.

At that point, television coverage switched to the Northwestern-Nebraska game and an almost incomprehensible scenario was unfolding. If the Wildcats could hang on to a 24-21 lead the Gophers would be in second place in the Legends Division—ahead of Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern.

Then Nebraska completed a miraculous fourth-and-long, teased us for a few minutes with some incomplete passes, then somehow pulled off a Hail Mary pass in the end zone as time expired to win the game and remain in second place, a half game ahead of the Gophers.

That hardly took the luster off an unbelievably exciting game against the Hoosiers that featured, among countless other exciting plays:

  • a flea flicker on Minnesota’s first offensive play, 39 yards from Philip Nelson to Derrick Engel
  • two long runs up the middle (for 58 yards and for 27 yards and a TD) by David Cobb, who finished with 188 yards rushing—his third straight 100-yard game
  • a failed fake punt by the Gophers in Minnesota territory that led to Indiana taking a 39-33 lead late in the game, and
  • a 50-yard pass down the seam to tight end Maxx Williams for the game-winning score

Bottom line is, this was a thrilling game that confirmed that the last of my complaints about the Gophers have fallen by the wayside in Year 3 of the Jerry Kill era. Utterly predictable, vanilla offense? Not necessarily. Never take a chance on fourth down? Obviously not true. Even if the failed fake punt would have been a deciding factor in a Gopher loss, I would have been okay with the call. No sense sitting on 50 years of mediocrity.

“The bottom line is we won a game and we made some plays when we needed to,” said Jerry Kill said after the game. For the third straight contest, Kill watched the action from the coaches box upstairs, and for the third straight game Minnesota pulled off an unexpected, exciting victory.

I’m an even bigger fan now, which took some doing. Go Gophers!

Of point spreads, predictions, and puzzles

Once again, Minnesota is getting no respect.

As of today, Indiana is favored to beat the Gophers by nine points in Bloomington tomorrow. Sure, the Hoosiers have a high-powered offense averaging over 40 points per game, but to go along with that they have a porous defense that often struggles mightily to keep opponents out of the end zone. Case in point: In their last game two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers kept things close before falling to Michigan by a score of… get this, 63-47.

It’s Indiana’s home turf and its homecoming, but it’s also a 3-4 team hosting a Minnesota team that’s 6-2.

I’m not about to make a prediction on this one, but I will point out some predictions gone awry by two Nebraska fans, Ashley Franks and Joe McCracken, who spoke with me before the game last Saturday. They didn’t pass the two-question Gopher football trivia quiz, and they didn’t pass muster on their predictions for the game, as evidenced below.

Chris Hawthorne gets a kick out of it?

Care to revel in the victory over Nebraska a bit more and challenge your puzzle skills at the same time? Georg Barany and Brent Hartzell released a crossword puzzle this week with a Gopher football theme, “in the afterglow of one of the most thrilling days in recent local sports history.” It’s considered “mid-week level,” and you can check out the puzzle here.